Interview: GI Joe’s Buzz Dixon on the Most Dangerous Man in the World

Posted: August 5, 2016 in Animation, Cartoons, Comics, Interviews, Transformers, TV, Uncategorized
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What if Serpentor never happened?

In 1986 GI JOE fans got a surprise. Cobra got an emperor in Serpentor. (a clone of the ancient world’s greatest military minds.) Serpentor’s creation would lead to the revelation that Cobra was a front for an ancient society of snake people. But, what if things were different

Before the Serpentor mandate, GI JOE Story-Editor Buzz Dixon was working on a status quo shattering episode called “The Most Dangerous Man in the World.” The episode would reveal the origin of Cobra and the man whose philosophy drove them. For obvious reasons, Buzz’s episode was passed aside and vanished into the realm of “What-if.” Until now!

After 30 years of sitting on the shelf, Buzz Dixon has turned “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” into a novel to be released this Fall. I talked to Buzz about what we can expect to see in his novelization.

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How did you get the job writing for GI Joe?

I knew Steve Gerber from when we worked together at Ruby-Spears Productions on Thundarr the Barbarian and other shows. Steve was one of my all time best friends. He knew I had served in the Army for 6 years and when he got the G.I. Joe story editor gig for season one, he sent me some scripts and asked me to give some unofficial feedback re the military aspects of the show.

Let’s just say the first batch of script, while action packed, we’re a tad inaccurate in regards to the way military units behaved, especially the various ranks within the unit, etc. I gave him some feedback and he had me do a sample script to show Hasbro what I could do. (That would have been “Haul Down The Heavens”.)

Based on my first script as well as Steve’s recommendation that since I’d been in the Army I could help give the show of patina of verisimilitude re military matters, Sunbow hired me as a staff writer.

 

When were you promoted to Story Editor?

Though I was supposed to be doing my own scripts as a staff writer, in truth I was story editing or at least going over the military details of most episodes that were being written. One thing I did do was get the series at least consistent if not 100% accurate in the way it portrayed the military, and as a result other writers were able to see what we did and write shows that fit into that mold.
Steve always had a problem with deadlines, and frequently would hand over scripts for me to edit or re-write. I’d say I probably had some input into at least half the shows of the first seasons, everything from just a few minor notes on details to page one re-writes.

I never took credit for re-writes because I always saw that as part of my job and not an excuse to try to grab extra credit. I’ve dealt with too many credit hogs to feel comfortable doing that.

About halfway through the first season they formally made me an assistant story editor (though they didn’t pay me more!). Due to Steven’s deadline problems, I think I ended up editing most of the last batch of season one episodes.

 

You’re finally writing your lost episode, “The Most Dangerous Man in the World.” Can you give us some background about the episode? Was it going to be a mini-series?

When season two of G.I. Joe rolled around, Steve had given up his story editor post even though he was still working on various Sunbow shows. I was made the sole story editor for season two (which only had 25 or so episodes, so it was a smaller scale to work on).

One of the things I wanted to do in season two was to examine how Cobra functioned. The series kind of skipped over a lot of logistics associated with mounting large scale military operations, and one of the biggest holes in the TV series (at least in my mind) was what motivated Cobra beyond pure greed and sadism.

I came up with the idea for “The Most Dangerous Man In The World” to explain that for the TV series (the comic book continuity runs parallel to the TV show continuity but does not match up). In my original concept, I saw Cobra having a Friedrich Nietzsche or Karl Marx like philosopher who had come up with the basic operating philosophy of Cobra, their raison d’etre for conquering the world — only Cobra Commander had badly garbled that philosophy in much the same way the Communists garbled Marx’ work. To keep this professor from exposing them and saying their motivation was false, Cobra kept him locked up in a prison deep in Cobra Command.

He escapes, of course, and Cobra brings all international operations to a screeching halt while they re-assign troops to find this guy. That, of course, rouses the Joes’ interest and they start a search for this escaped prisoner — even though they don’t know his name, what he looks like, or why Cobra wants him. All they know is if Cobra wants him, they have to get him first.

They get him, but he turns out to be a thoroughly unlikeable obnoxious jerk. His philosophy, however, is workable (I was going to base it on an Asian philosophy that pre-dated Confucianism) and some of the Joes with a more authoritarian bent find it kind of attractive. (Cobra Commander, of course, has completely screwed it up, especially the parts that require the Cobra troopers to be willing to sacrifice themselves to save civilians; the philosopher wants to rule the world but for the good of humanity, not their own greed or thirst for power).

There are plenty of twists and turns along the way, but in the end the philosopher escapes from the Joes and the Joes pretty much say: “Eh, let him go…” thinking that if he harms Cobra by exposing them, that only makes their job easier.

Hasbro loved my beat outline and told me to go to script “…only make sure you put the Cobra Emperor in there.”

I said, “The who?”

“The Cobra Emperor.”

“Who’s the Cobra Emperor?”

“He’s the guy in charge of Cobra.”

“What happened to Cobra Commander?”

“Oh, he’s under the Emperor’s authority.”

“No he’s not. We spent the entire first season depicting him as the supreme leader of Cobra. If you had told us, we could have laid some track to hint there was somebody above him. Where does this Cobra Emperor come from, anyway?”

“Oh, he’s always been there.”

“No, he hasn’t! We can’t simply drop in a character of this magnitude without explaining where he came from!”

“Hmm, good point. Come up with a couple of ideas.”

So I did, and that veers off into a discussion of “Arise, Serpentor, Arise!” and G.I. Joe: The Movie but I’ll save that for a latter date.

Serpentor, as the Cobra Emperor came to be known, completely screwed up my idea to explain Cobra’s philosophical origins since Cobra ended up being explained as a front of a fabulous hidden civilization that had ulterior motives for funding them.

 

How far did you get writing “The Most Dangerous Man in the World”? Was it outlined? Did it get to the script stage?

I’d written a premise, which is a short paragraph describing the basic story idea, and had just finished a beat outline which showed how the story would play out in standard 3 act structure. I was just getting ready to embark on the actual screenwriting when Hasbro dropped their Cobra emperor bombshell on me.

 

How will this version of “Most Dangerous Man in the World” be different from your original?

Since this is the story I originally intended to do, there is no reference to Serpentor or Cobra-la in it. My view of Cobra was a purely real world organization, and my story would have explained how they could function and recruit and fund themselves.
Also, it ended up being a lot longer! I originally saw the episode as a standard 22-minutestory broken into 3 acts, same as all the other Joe episodes. As I started writing the story, however, I began adding a lot of things to it, such as the origin of one popular G.I. Joe character. Further, things that originally would have been brief scenes in the larger story — the Dreadnoks raid on a college, for instance — are now beefed up into major battle scenes.

The first draft of the book, which I just completed last Saturday, runs over 52,000 words long. How much will be cut when I edit, or how much will be added as I see places that need to be fleshed out, I couldn’t guess.

But I think it’s going to be a fun read and very satisfying to all the Joe fans out there!

 

Will the book include your original outline?

Probably not; I think the original premise and outline exist only in my memory now (unless I happen to find them in my papers before publication, but since I threw out most of my G.I. Joe material decades ago it’s unlikely).

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 Serpentor. Who came up with him? Was it you? Larry Hama?  Ron Friedman? Who decided he would be a clone of the greatest minds in military history?

Hasbro came up with Cobra Emperor and told us to include him. I asked where he came from and was told, “he’s always been there.” When I pointed out we’d never indicated there was anyone above Cobra Commander and we had to provide some explanation of where he originated, they told me to develop a couple of ideas.

 

They went through a couple of variations on his name before settling on Serpentor. I remember for about two weeks one of the alternate names was King Cobra and I kept my mouth shut when I heard that because if there was anything I wanted to do, it was write a kid-vid character named after a malt liquor. Somebody in the Hasbro legal department caught that, however, and it was changed.

 

So I came up with two ideas: One, that Dr. Mindbender creates Serpentor from the combined DNA of histories most ruthless military leaders so Cobra will finally have a competent leader, and the other that there was a secret empire behind Cobra, an empire even the rank and file Cobra members knew nothing about.

The DNA idea was clearly the superior one, and certainly more well thought out, so of course Hasbro falls for both of them and I had to combine the two ideas.

My advice to all writers is, when they ask you to come up with two or more ideas, come up only with the idea you like and present that. If they were capable of coming up with ideas on their own, they wouldn’t be hiring you. Don’t give them the chance to do something stupid, or that you won’t like

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 Cobra-La. Who came up with that? Why did Cobra-La become a Lovecraftian society as opposed to an “Illuminati” like cabal?

As I said, it was my idea (although not my best or most favorite one) to have a secret empire behind Cobra. When Hasbro went for both ideas, I had to reconcile them. To explain Dr. Mindbender’s brilliant DNA insight, we needed a vastly ancient and technologically superior (albeit bio-tech) civilization, otherwise a more human scale secret cabal ala the Illuminati might have worked.

When I started developing the idea, I had no fixed location in mind. I think I rejected Antarctica for some reason that made sense at the time (possibly because John Carpenter’s The Thing had just been set there) and had the Himalayas just as a place- holder setting (logically the Amazon basin would have been a better location for a snake-based civilization). I called it Cobra-la as a placeholder name because after the King Cobra incident I felt certainly somebody at Hasbro would realize it was derived from the single most famous lost civilization in all of literature, Shangri-la in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (which is also set in the Himalayas).

But, nope, they loved it and despite my begging them to change it to something less derivative and stupid, they stuck with it.

So I tell young writers, if you have to use a placeholder name, come up with something absolutely unusable, such as Festering Monkey Hemorrhoid Island or Granny’s Bawdy House.

(Sidebar re Shangri-la: In the novel it is the location of a near immortal culture of peace loving people who have learned the secret of living in harmony with one another. When the U.S. bombed Tokyo in the beginning of WWII, reporters asked President Roosevelt where the bombers had taken off from. Rather than reveal they were carrier based, Roosevelt jokingly replied “Shangri-la” and so a few years later a new U.S. aircraft carrier was launched named the U.S.S. Shangri-la. Ironic that a culture, albeit a fictional one, built around the idea of peace has a terrible weapon of war named after it.)

Did Hasbro have the Cobra-La toys made before you started working on the movie or did they take direction from the show?

Several of the characters wee already in development. Nemesis Enforcer, the flying villain, certainly was. Ron Friedman had taken a crack at the first Joe screenplay but Hasbro was not satisfied with the result (this is no slam against Friedman, who is a terrific writer, and has a list of impressive credits, but he just never seemed to fully grasp the military mindset needed for the show). I remember reading that script (though I can’t remember a thing about it now) and the only thing I thought was salvageable from it was Nemesis Enforcer.

Whether he came up with it or Hasbro did, I don’t know.

Pythona and Golobulus were created by me, though Golobulus was greatly changed by Hasbro from my original conception. Originally he was supposed to be a very rotund, seemingly effete human patterned after Charles Laughton as Nero, born about everywhere on a litter by acolytes and fed grapes and other snacks by them. In the end when Sgt. Slaughter confronts him, he would have signed and said, “Well, I suppose I must deign to fight you…” and then suddenly launch into a series of blistering fast and powerful martial arts move, completely belying the impression he created. Hasbro thought that was too effete and changed him to what he was in the film.

The Renegades and the new Joes (Jinx, Lt Falcon, etc.) were all from Hasbro though I think I was the one who suggested Falcon have a family relationship with another Joe (I originally wanted him to be Hawk’s son but they vetoed that and made him Duke’s brother).

 

Did you protest Cobra-La like Larry Hama did?

Well, I tried to convince them not to use it. As to what Larry Hama did / didn’t do regarding Cobra-la, I couldn’t say. I love Larry’s work and am a big fan of his writing but at the time everybody at Sunbow decided to avoid the G.I. Joe comics entirely rather than try to reconcile the TV show with the comic book. Larry did a great job, one of the longest and most successful runs for a comics writer ever, but with rare exception I think we steered clear of his work at the time and I’ve only encountered his Joe material sporadically after that.

What was Ron’s original draft for the movie like? Was his take on Cobra-La different from yours? How many drafts of the movie were written?

I honestly cannot remember anything about Ron’s script at this point other than the character we ended up calling Nemesis Enforcer was in it. As for the number of drafts, I don’t have my copy readily available, but there had to have been at least three major drafts plus two polishes (not to mention last minute dialog changes)

Duke was originally going to die. But, Optimus Prime’s death changed that and he went into a coma. His half-brother Lt. Falcon avenged him.

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Who decided Falcon should be Duke’s half-brother? Why wasn’t this mentioned on his filecard b/c it’s a really cool angle.

I suggested some sort of personal connection between one of the old Joes and a new recruit. I suggest he be General Hawk’s son (Hawk / Falcon) but that was turned down in favor of him and Duke being half-brothers. Personally, I think the father / son angle would have been stronger and would have explained better why Falcon was involved w/GI Joe even though he seemed antipathetic to it, but Hasbro chose the Duke option. At that point I suggested that since we were doing a war toy and had been criticized for now showing how horrible real combat could be, that we kill off some of the Joes who were going to be phased out of the product line. Duke, being the most prominent, was tapped for the sacrifice.

Hasbro, however, liked Duke’s death scene so much they told the crew doing the Transformers movie to bump off Optimus Prime in a similar manner. Now, the Joe audience was about 12 years old and knew enough about the real world to accept the fact that people can get killed in combat. The Transformers’ audience was around 9 or 10 and not that mature yet. (Further, Optimus Prime being a robot really rendered the whole life / death thing moot; you can trash a robot but always rebuild ‘em.) Optimus Prime’s death was so traumatic to the Transformers audience that Hasbro hastily removed all references to Duke dying and replaced them w/clumsy dialog explaining he was in a coma but later came out of it.

As to why the Duke / Falcon relationship was not mentioned on the card, that’s a question for Hasbro. Not my bailiwick.

 

The Movie went into the Origin of Cobra but not the GI Joe team. Was the origin of the Joes ever discussed? Will this be addressed in “The Most Dangerous Man in the World”?

Yes, albeit not directly. It will be stated that G.I. Joe was specifically created to face Cobra because of certain advantages Cobra has that we were not allowed to discuss on the TV show (such as the fact they must possess nuclear weapons and can hold the armies of the world at bay or otherwise they’d be bombed out of existence within hours).

 

You originally saw “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” as just a standard 22 minute episode. As an aspiring writer, even following the three-act structure, this story (to me) needs to be a mini-series. It could’ve been the Movie! It’s big and a game changer. How would you have turned this story into one standard episode? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers on condensing?

 

The first draft is about 52,000 words long which is a short novel length. I originally planned to do it in a single 22-minute episode, but then I originally planned for “The Traitor” to be 22-minutes, too. It might have started expanding as I wrote it and have required two episodes. Since I can go big with the story in the book, I’m adding a lot more details and background stuff than I could have put into a TV episode.

As for condensing, start as close to the end as possible.

 

Will we learn Cobra Commander’s real name and background in “The Most Dangerous Man in the World”?

No.

 

One of the things the GI Joe comic did was tie all the characters together through their experiences in Vietnam. Did you ever propose showing the Joes past experiences in the military? Did you float the Vietnam idea to Hasbro/Sunbow?

 

While they’re unified by their Vietnam experience in the comics, we never got that explicit in the TV series. It’s presumed many of them were combat vets before the series start but we don’t dwell on that.

 

As military, how much about military life were you able to put in the show? Did you ever float a Joe basic training episode? Did you ever try to address PTSD? What about an episode dealing with the disrespect Vietnam veterans had to endure?

 

I was pleased to get a little bit of military protocol through, and straighten out the mess they’d made re ranks, etc. I snuck in some lines about “casualties” which in military terms refer to living and dead. The show was never a realistic look at military life but hopefully we made it a little bit less fanciful.

We touched on new recruits training in the movie, but by the time the average Joe reaches Joe HQ for testing, they’ve already gotten a lot of military experience, so no need for basic training. (We will have a couple of training scenes in the book) We were not allowed to touch on certain topics, such as people being maimed, so discussion of PTSD was out (Low-Light’s problems came from child abuse, not military service).

The story of returning military personnel being disrespected after Vietnam is a myth. No one has been able to turn up a single documented case of it happening, not even among newspaper accounts, personal journals, letters, etc. It was always a “friend of a friend” story.

 When will “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” be available?

September 30th. Perhaps Earlier.

 

Comments
  1. Zartan1011 says:

    Hi, I submitted your article to Hisstank (a G.I. Joe Fan site). I found your article very interesting and I recommended it to everybody there. Thanks for writing this article.

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